Critics Say La. State, City Police Missed Clues in Serial Killings
ZACHARY, La. (AP) -- Since accused serial killer Derrick Todd Lee was arrested in May, victims' families have criticized the task force investigating the murders for ignoring tips about Lee that small-town detectives and state investigators had offered in 2002.
Investigators from the Zachary Police Department and the state attorney general's office got the credit, and the task force, made up of state, federal and Baton Rouge crime fighters, got the criticism.
New information, culled by The Times-Picayune of New Orleans from 1998 correspondence regarding the Randi Mebruer murder in Zachary and interviews with her survivors, shows that the Zachary and attorney general's investigators made mistakes notably similar to the ones for which the task force has been criticized.
In particular, despite strong suspicions that Lee had killed Mebruer, they failed to swab him for a DNA sample and failed to test evidence from the crime scene for DNA until recently.
Lee has since been linked to Mebruer's murder, along with the murders of six other women, by police who say Lee's genetic information matches the DNA evidence left behind on the victims.
If the DNA testing had been ordered sooner, it could have linked Lee to what was in evidence all along: semen on a trash can liner from Mebruer's house.
That evidence, revealed last month almost six years after Mebruer's death, was good enough to charge Lee with Mebruer's murder. And it likely would have been enough to get the attention of the task force in 2002, because they were using DNA to connect the crimes.
Unfortunately, said Sgt. Ray Day of the Zachary Police Department, investigators weren't sure what they had back then and didn't follow up on initial blood-typing and fingerprinting test results, which recommended further DNA testing.
Meanwhile, Zachary detectives and the attorney general's investigators who assisted them were busy chasing down the wrong man: Mebruer's ex-husband, Michael Mebruer.
They asked Michael Mebruer, and not Lee, for a DNA sample, according to notes his attorney, Tommy Damico, typed up in 1998.
In the years that followed, according to interviews with family members, Dannie Mixon, an attorney general's investigator credited with cracking the case, was so convinced that Michael Mebruer had killed his ex-wife that Randi Mebruer's mother Nancy Powers doesn't recall ever hearing Lee's name after 1999.
Mixon "told me repeatedly, 'He killed your daughter. He killed your daughter. He was the one who murdered your daughter,"' Powers said.
Mixon, who finally swabbed Lee for DNA in May, declined to comment, but Zachary investigators last week defended their handling of the Mebruer murder, the earliest of the seven murders to which Lee has been linked. Mebruer's body has never been found.
Lt. David McDavid, Zachary's lead detective on the case, said it's easy in hindsight to second-guess decisions made at a time when "different opinions" from different agencies were pulling the investigation in different directions.
Lee had a criminal history in the area where Randi Mebruer lived, with arrests there for burglary and for peeking into women's houses.
McDavid said Lee, who is scheduled for trial May 10 in Baton Rouge, was always his prime suspect and that he doesn't remember asking Michael Mebruer for a DNA sample.
DNA wasn't a tool that they used back then, said former Chief John Wales. "People didn't think about DNA then," Wales said. "I'd never heard of DNA."
Zachary Police Chief Joey Watson, who took office last year, said he doesn't question the department's decision not to swab Lee for a DNA sample before last spring.
"It's possible that another investigator, or group of investigators, early on would have said, 'I think we've got enough to convince a judge to get a swab.' But we didn't want to scare the guy off," Watson said. "Here, you're accusing a guy of multiple murders. It's not like you're accusing somebody for shoplifting. So you want to be sure."
Mebruer's loved ones now wonder if all six women murdered after Mebruer would be alive today if investigators had done things differently.
"This is a huge cover-up. They messed up horribly on this case several, several times," Michael Mebruer said last week from his home in Syracuse, Kan. "A big cover-up, man. That's what it is. They were talking DNA just a couple months after all this happened, asking for my DNA. They're trying to cover their footsteps. They dropped the ball."